Iago and Roderigo wait outside the brothel where Cassio visits Bianca. Iago positions Roderigo with a rapier (a type of sword) in a place where he will be able to ambush Cassio. Iago then leaves, although Roderigo asks him not to go too far in case he needs help killing Cassio. Cassio enters, and Roderigo stabs at him but fails to pierce Cassio’s armor. Cassio stabs and wounds Roderigo. Iago darts out in the commotion, stabs Cassio in the leg, and exits. Not knowing who has stabbed him, Cassio falls. At this moment, Othello enters. Hearing Cassio’s cries of murder, Othello believes that Iago has killed him. Inspired by what he believes to be Iago’s successful vengeance, Othello returns to his bedroom to kill Desdemona.
Lodovico and Graziano enter and hear Cassio’s and Roderigo’s cries. They can see nothing because of the darkness, and they are wary of helping the crying men in case it is a trap. Iago enters carrying a light. He first pretends to discover Cassio, who begs him for help, and then stumbles upon Cassio’s assailant, Roderigo, whom Iago stabs without hesitation. Graziano and Lodovico are still unable to see Iago, and they are unaware of what he is doing. Finally, the three men come face-to-face, and they question Cassio about his injuries.
Bianca enters and begins to cry out when she sees the wounded Cassio. Iago questions Cassio about his assailant, but Cassio can provide no explanation for what has happened. Iago suggests that Roderigo is to blame. Cassio says that he does not know Roderigo. Attendants carry off Cassio and Roderigo’s corpse. Emilia enters, and Iago tells her what has happened, adding the explanation, “This is the fruits of whoring” (V.i.
Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well,
Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe. . . .
Holding a candle, Othello stands over the sleeping Desdemona and prepares to kill her. He bends down to kiss her once before he does the deed, she wakes, and he tells her to prepare to die. Growing frightened, Desdemona asks her husband why he means to kill her, and Othello responds that she has been unfaithful to him with Cassio—he has seen the proof in the handkerchief. Othello refuses to believe Desdemona’s denial of the charge, saying that Cassio has confessed but will speak no more, since he has been killed by Iago.
Desdemona begins to weep for Cassio, which only drives Othello into a greater rage. Wrestling with her as she begs to be allowed to live just a little longer, Othello finally succeeds in smothering his wife. Emilia calls from outside the door, and Othello, apparently delirious, confuses her cries with his wife’s and concludes that Desdemona is not yet dead. Thinking himself to be merciful, and not wanting to have his wife linger in pain, he smothers her again.
Othello draws the bed curtains and lets Emilia in. Emilia informs Othello that Cassio has killed Roderigo. Othello asks if Cassio has been killed as well, and Emilia informs him that Cassio is alive. As Othello begins to realize that his plans have gone awry, Desdemona cries out that she has been murdered. She stays alive long enough to recant this statement, telling Emilia that she was not murdered but killed herself. She dies. Othello triumphantly admits to Emilia that he killed Desdemona, and when she asks him why, Othello tells her that Iago opened his eyes to Desdemona’s falsehood. Unfazed by Othello’s threat that she “were best” to remain silent, Emilia calls out for help, bringing Montano, Graziano, and Iago to the scene (V.ii.
As the truth of Iago’s villainy begins to come out through Emilia’s accusations, Othello falls weeping upon the bed that contains the body of his dead wife. Almost to himself, Graziano expresses relief that Brabanzio is dead—the first news the audience has heard of this—and has not lived to see his daughter come to such a terrible end. Othello still clings to his belief in Iago’s truth and Desdemona’s guilt, mentioning the handkerchief and Cassio’s “confession.” When Othello mentions the handkerchief, Emilia erupts, and Iago, no longer certain that he can keep his plots hidden, attempts to silence her with his sword.
Graziano stops him and Emilia explains how she found the handkerchief and gave it to Iago. Othello runs at Iago but is disarmed by Montano. In the commotion, Iago is able to stab his wife, who falls, apparently dying. Iago flees and is pursued by Montano and Graziano. Left alone onstage with the bodies of the two women, Othello searches for another sword. Emilia’s dying words provide eerie background music, as she sings a snatch of the song “Willow.” She tells Othello that Desdemona was chaste and loved him.
Graziano returns to find Othello armed and defiant, mourning the loss of his wife. They are joined shortly by Montano, Lodovico, Cassio, and Iago, who is being held prisoner. Othello stabs Iago, wounding him, and Lodovico orders some soldiers to disarm Othello. Iago sneers that he bleeds but is not killed. He refuses to say anything more about what he has done, but Lodovico produces a letter found in Roderigo’s pocket that reveals everything that has happened. Seeking some kind of final reconciliation, Othello asks Cassio how he came by the handkerchief, and Cassio replies that he found it in his chamber.
Lodovico tells Othello that he must come with them back to Venice, and that he will be stripped of his power and command and put on trial. Refusing to be taken away before he has spoken, Othello asks his captors, “When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, / Speak of me as I am” (V.ii.350–351). He reminds them of a time in Aleppo when he served the Venetian state and slew a malignant Turk. “I took by the throat the circumcised dog / And smote him thus,” says Othello, pulling a third dagger from hiding and stabbing himself in demonstration (V.ii.364–365). Pledging to “die upon a kiss,” Othello falls onto the bed with his wife’s body (V.ii.
Lodovico tells Iago to look at the result of his devious efforts, names Graziano as Othello’s heir, and puts Montano in charge of Iago’s execution. Lodovico prepares to leave for Venice to bear the news from Cyprus to the duke and senate.
In the first scene of Act V, we see the utterly futile end of Roderigo and his plans. Roderigo was first persuaded that he need only follow Othello and Desdemona to Cyprus in order to win over Desdemona, then that he need only disgrace Cassio, then that he need only kill Cassio. Now, Roderigo, stabbed by the man who gave him false hope, dies empty-handed in every possible way. He has given all his money and jewels to Iago, who admits that the jewelry more than anything else motivated his killing of Roderigo: “Live Roderigo, / He calls me to a restitution large / Of gold and jewels that I bobbed from him” (V.i.14–16).
Roderigo is certainly a pathetic character, evidenced by the fact that he does not even succeed in killing Cassio. Unwittingly, Roderigo causes Iago’s plan to be foiled for the first time in the play. Because of this, Iago is forced to bloody his own hands, also for the first time in the play. Displaying a talent for improvisation, Iago takes the burden of action into his own hands because he has no other choice. Once Iago sees that Roderigo has failed to kill Cassio, Iago is able to wound Cassio, return with a light to “save” Cassio, kill Roderigo, and cast suspicion on Bianca and her brothel, all in a very short time. Neither Lodovico, Graziano, nor Cassio shows the slightest suspicion that Iago is somehow involved in the mayhem. Othello is not the only one who finds Iago “honest.”
Othello’s brief appearance in Act V, scene i, is particularly horrifying. Joyfully supposing Cassio to be dead, Othello proceeds to his bedchamber with great fervor, crying, “Strumpet, I come. / Forth of my heart those charms, thine eyes, are blotted. / Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted” (V.i.
As Othello prepares to kill Desdemona at the beginning of the final scene, the idea of killing her becomes curiously intertwined, in his mind, with the idea of taking her virginity. In Act V, scene ii, he expresses his sorrow that he has to kill her in terms that suggest his reluctance to take her virginity: “When I have plucked thy rose / I cannot give it vital growth again. / It must needs wither” (V.ii.
Although it seems ludicrous to suggest that Othello has not yet taken Desdemona’s virginity, the play includes two scenes during which their marriage is supposed to be sexually consummated, and in both the couple is interrupted as Othello is called on to resolve a crisis. This is only, it seems, the couple’s third night together, and Desdemona has asked that her wedding sheets be put on the bed. The wedding sheets would prove one way or another whether the marriage was consummated, depending on whether they were stained with blood.
Desdemona’s choice of the sheets for a shroud may suggest that they are unstained. If they have consummated their marriage, Othello’s words may suggest his unwillingness to accept the fact that he has already taken Desdemona’s virginity, and his jealous fantasies about Desdemona’s supposed debauchery may stem from his fear of her newly awakened sexuality, and from his own feeling of responsibility for having awakened it.
After Desdemona wakes, the scene progresses in a series of wavelike rushes that leave the audience as stunned and disoriented as the characters onstage. For starters, Desdemona seems to die twice—Othello smothers her once, then smothers her again after mistaking Emilia’s screams from outside for his wife’s. Astonishingly, Desdemona finds breath again to speak four final lines after Emilia enters the bedroom. Similarly, Emilia’s death appears certain after Iago stabs her and Graziano says, “[T]he woman falls. Sure he hath killed his wife,” and then, “He’s gone, but his wife’s killed” (V.ii.
Before he kills himself, Othello invokes his prior services to the state, asking Lodovico and the other Venetians to listen to him for a moment. At this point, he is resolved to die, and his concern is with how he will be remembered. When he appeals to his listeners to describe him as he actually is, neither better or worse, the audience may or may not agree with his characterization of himself as one not easily made jealous, or as one who loved “not wisely but too well” (V.ii.
As he continues, though, he addresses an important problem: will his crime be remembered as the fall from grace of a Venetian Christian, or an assault on Venice by an ethnic and cultural outsider? He stresses his outsider status in a way that he does not do earlier in the play, comparing himself to a “base Indian” who cast away a pearl worth more than all of his tribe (V.ii.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare cultivates Othello’s ambivalent status as insider and outsider. Othello identifies himself firmly with Christian culture, yet his belief in fate and the charmed handkerchief suggest ties to a pagan heritage. Despite the fact that his Christianity seems slightly ambiguous, however, Shakespeare repeatedly casts Othello as Christ and Iago as Judas (or, ironically, as Peter). (See analysis of Act I, scene ii, and Act III, scene iii.) These echoes of the Gospel suggest that Othello and his tragedy are somehow central to the Christian world of Venice.
Moreover, while most modern editions of the play include the words “base Indian” (V.ii.